Readers want to know what they’re getting. If you are a writer promising them news, well then, the information that you deliver had better be accurate, complete and fresh to your audience. That’s how you build credibility and, over time, audience loyalty.
One of the ways that the journalism industry has tried over the past few decades to reassure the public that its information is accurate is by restricting the political activity of its reporters. But does that work? Does telling reporters not to campaign, not to contribute, or even not to vote, really help build readership?
If recent trends in newspaper circulation offer evidence, the answer is “no.” But it’s hard to separate political restrictions on reporters from the other variables affecting people’s decision whether or not to read a paper.
So, the debate continues. In the build-up to the recent Super Tuesday elections, the editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, John Temple, ordered his newsroom’s reporters not to participate in the Colorado caucuses. (Unlike primaries, in caucuses there are not secret ballots and people must declare their preference publicly.)
“Because caucuses are party activities that involve expressing your political position in public, you should not attend them, unless you’re covering them for the Rocky,” Temple wrote, in an e-mail obtained and published by the Denver weekly Westword. Temple later reversed his decision, according to Westword.
[Disclosure: I used to work for the Rocky Mountain News, though when I edited the Rocky's website, it did not report to Temple.]
Columnist Dana Parsons of the Los Angeles Times explained why newsrooms have restricted their reporters’ political activity:
“Believe it or not, we are trying to cover these controversial social issues with objectivity. And we still have the belief that people belonging to Greenpeace, for example, shouldn’t be covering the environment.
No, that doesn’t mean we don’t have personal opinions. It just means we’re schooled that you can have an opinion and still report both sides fairly.
And if being a party activist suggests you can’t be impartial (which it would), better not to be one.”
My USC Annenberg colleague, and popular blogger, Marc Cooper, added his view in e-mail to me, coming down on the side of allowing some activity, provided that it is disclosed to readers:
“There is no set formula. My personal view is one of common sense i.e. that obvious conflicts of interest must be avoided. Someone actively involved in a campaign should not be writing about it as and objective observer unless, of course, your editor actually wants a first-person piece with a defined POV (This is common in the journals of opinion I have worked for as compared to most newspapers).
Whether or not a political affairs journalist should be allowed to make a financial contribution to a campaign is, again, a matter that is determined on an employer-by-employer basis. Some permit it. Some don’t. Some won’t even allow their reporters to put a partisan bumpersticker on his or her car.
Again, my personal view is that I would prefer political reporters be passionate and engaged in the process so long as they fully disclose their preferences. Their work can then be fully evaluated for its fairness. I am suspicious of political reporters who have no views. This, however, is a minority position within the profession.”
My take? The winners in the Internet publishing business will be those who write with deep knowledge and committed passion for the topics that they cover. Given that few areas of life stand completely unaffected by elected government, every beat will have some political element. A journalist’s job is to investigate and to report on controversies, including political ones. It’s ridiculous to believe that their reporting is not going to ever lead them to conclude that certain parties’ or certain candidates’ positions are better for their audience than others’.
Asking journalists to remain silent on politics cheats readers by promoting the idea that a well-informed, “objective” source will have nothing to say about which candidates for elected office offer the best hope for a community. If a reporter’s got nothing to say, why should anyone read him/her?
Furthermore, it’s hard to rest any non-participation policy on the need for “objectivity” when there’s a such a schism in America today over what “objectivity” even means.
Almost everyone working in journalism today ascribes to a post-Englightenment view of truth as deriving from empirical evidence. Collect the data, check them, test them, and we’ll support the hypothesis that they support.
But there’s a massive segment of the public that finds its truth not from empiricism but from creed and canon. In its most popular form in the United States, it is the belief by Christian fundamentalists that physical evidence can and is manipulated by the will of God. Therefore, mankind ought to find truth not through the transience of the physical world but through the enduring word of Scripture.
Therefore, any news reporting that relies completely upon empiricism and that does not acknowledge the word of Scripture cannot be considered “objective,” but is, instead, biased, incomplete and flawed.
I believe that this is the reason why so many news organizations are besieged by accusations of “liberal bias,” because they practice journalism according to a belief structure that is at odds with the belief structure of those readers who complain. The journalism industry’s concept of “objectivity” is objective only within a post-Enlightenment, pro-empiricism belief structure that is not held by a significant segment of the population. Or, in my opinion, a great many people currently in power in United States politics.
Journalists cannot be “objective” to all of their readers. The best we can do is to explain how and why we collect and report the information that we do. And if that information leads us to a specific conclusion, we should reveal that and explain how we got there. That’s truly complete reporting. Whether readers choose to believe it, or to challenge it, is up to them.
In short, allow me to quote the E.W. Scripps motto, which I saw every day atop the Rocky Mountain News when I worked in Denver: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”
Which brings up to the question of the week:
Please give us your take on this issue in the comments.
Update: When I talk about journalists, I mean anyone who publishes news online, whether they use they use the Big “J” word to describe themselves or not. Also, after I’ve made my point here, I suppose I should go ahead and reveal that I voted in the California primary. For Hillary Clinton. (I was going to vote for John Edwards, but when he dropped out, I chose to go with Clinton over Barack Obama. But barely. I find Duncan Black’s analysis of the race compelling.)